Archetypes are easier to recognise than define. We can all get the idea that a figure such as “mother” is a pattern which occurs across different species, peoples and cultures over time. But what do we mean when we call “mother” an archetype? The word archetype is from the Greek “arkhetupos” (ἀρχέτυπος) and was used to describe a “first mould” or model, in the sense of being the initial version of something later multiplied, such as a mould for a pot. The word had two parts, “arkhos” (ἀρχή) meaning first or chief and “tupos” (τύπος) meaning mould, pattern or type. The word then translates literally as first or primary pattern. This seems quite straight forward when applied to pottery, as it was originally by the ancient Greeks, but of course it didn’t stop there (it never does!) as the idea of archetype was later applied to the world of biological categories and ideas. It is when “archetype” is applied to the realm of biology or ideas that its original meaning as first mould becomes less applicable, for it does not make as much sense to talk about the first mould of mothers or of an archetype like the hero. What we might want then is a definition that encompasses the intention of its first Greek usage but allows us to understand how it is used in the modern sense.
A working definition
I have been studying archetypes for several decades and have read much on the topic and thought about it a great deal (“What, nothing better to do?” I hear you exclaim) and it is out of that endeavour that I would like to suggest a working definition: An archetype is an organising pattern. So applied to the original Greek idea of a pottery mould, we can see how the original acts like a pattern which organises the clay and replicates the original template. However the emphasis is not so much on the mould itself as an object but more on what the original mould actually does – it acts as an organising pattern for the clay from which the copies are made.
Now when we turn to the later usages of the word “archetype” we may begin to see how this definition can be useful. The archetypes of mother and hero are organising patterns which bring forth the many examples of mothers and heroes we encounter in everyday life. Let’s go into this more deeply. The first thing you may wonder about is, if an archetype is an organising pattern, what these patterns might actually organise. So let’s take the example of mother, which is an archetype within biology, what does the archetype of mother actually organise? Well firstly we might notice that it organises behaviour. After all, being a mother is about giving birth and nurturing an offspring. It makes sense then that evolution would throw up this behavioural pattern of mothering for reproductive purposes, it’s a neat way of organizing biological reproduction. But something has to drive this pattern of behaviour so the second organising we might notice is instinct. Archetypes can form instincts – biological drives which cause female animals to mate in order become mothers and instincts which lead them to protect, feed and nurture their offspring. But there’s more! We can also notice that the archetype will also organise the physical bodies of mothers. And here nature is resplendent in its variety as well as commonalities with ovaries, eggs, wombs and breasts all becoming part of female biology somewhere along the path of evolution resulting in the biological forms associated with being a mother.
Yet the organising of the archetype goes on. You could also paint a picture of what a human mother looks like and you would have an archetypal image (more on this later) or you could write a story about a mother’s fierce protection of her child and you could notice that the mother archetype will also organise art and literature. And people have worshiped the mother goddess, so it appears that the archetype has also organised spirituality.
But what makes this all so interesting is that the archetype also organises the inner life of individuals. The mother archetype may activate in one person as sense of warmth and affection due to a positive experience with their mother, in another a slow smouldering anger. Later on in life, the mother archetype might produce a feeling of longing in a woman as she begins to imagine having her own child.
It is this capacity to organise our inner lives that Jung himself pointed out when he wrote:
Archetypes, so far as we can observe and experience them at all, manifest themselves only through their ability to organize images and ideas, and this is always an unconscious process which cannot be detected until afterwards. C.G. Jung Collected Works 8:440.